[Note, I wrote this originally as an op-ed but when the Wash Post passed on it, I decided to post it here. I returned from El Salvador last night.]
The options available to the average young person in El Salvador are about as limited as the options available to the Salvadoran government is it struggles to deal with gang violence. Both suffer from lack of money, lack of opportunities, and little reason for hope. The young men and women braving the journey to the United States as well as those who decide to stay in their homeland confront a set of choices that should be seen, both in the United States and in El Salvador, as intolerable and inhumane. They can go North, through Guatemala and Mexico to the United States, in which case, if everything goes perfectly, they will have a second class status in the United States and no real opportunity to see their families for possibly decades. Or they can stay, struggling to get by on a couple hundred dollars a month and with the fear that their lives may be cut short. And such fear is justified.
Security remains the most important issue in El Salvador more than two decades after a peace treaty was signed in 1992 that ended the country’s long civil war. Guns are everywhere. Men with shotguns and semi-official looking uniforms stand guard in front of nearly every formal business. For those with money to buy a Big Mac or to go shopping elsewhere, shotguns are so ubiquitous that they eventually blend into the background. It is a bit harder to ignore the hardened look of soldiers and police officers riding around in the back of pickup trucks, machine guns pointed outward, eyes scanning constantly, and fingers on the trigger. When San Salvador was merely the third most dangerous city in the world, behind Tegucigalpa and Cuidad Juarez, the police presence was less marked and officers rested their guns in their laps, but as the city and the nation’s murder rate has soared, that has changed.
Although the rhetoric of the two major political parties, ARENA and FMLN, continues to be defined by the Cold War battle between capitalism and communism, when it comes to security, the current leftist government’s strategy with regard to the gangs is not that different from the mano duro, Iron Fist, approach of the right. The gangs, most notably Mara Salvatrucha and Mara-18, have proven themselves capable of exerting their will against both political parties, the result of which is that the left has found itself in the uncomfortable position of having to embrace many of the law and order tactics long favored by the right. When the FMLN candidate, Mauricio Funes, won the presidency in 2009 and by doing so ended decades of rule by ARENA, the country entered into a period in which it was briefly possible to imagine an alternative path forward. But it is hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel and the government does not have any good options. The previous government’s involvement in brokering a gang truce was remarkable but it is far less noteworthy that the current government has decided that the truce was a mistake and that the government won’t negotiate with “terrorists,” as they are starting to describe the gangs. About the only thing remarkable is that the president had left for Cuba at this trying time and that the national guard is not being mobilized to a greater extent. Given the way violence is impacting whole areas of the country and wide swaths of the country, it is hard to see what choices the government has other than confrontation.
I spend several months a year in El Salvador and truly I love the country. And there are many things that are better about El Salvador than the United States. It is a small but beautiful country. To the south, the beaches are amazing and,
unlike the ocean near where I live in the United States, the water always has a perfect temperature. In the north, rugged mountains dotted with small, picturesque, towns provide incredible views and a crisp, colder climate. And San Salvador itself lies in the shadow of one of the country’s majestic volcanos. But more important than the country’s natural beauty are the people. Most of the people grow up, live, and die very close to where they were born, which can sound like something negative to people in the United States accustomed to leaving home at eighteen and never looking back. But there is also something beautiful about always being near family, about going to one birthday party after another and knowing that you will see the same family members and friends again and again throughout life. When my father-in-law died, his teacher from kindergarten showed up, as did his group of friends from third grade, his college friends, all his family, as well as countless others who also spent most of their lives in the same city. No wonder that surveys regularly report that the people of El Salvador, despite being so poor and so plagued by violence, are among the happiest in the world.
I used to encourage people to come to El Salvador so that I could show them the country but unless Americans have the benefit of a local guide, I cannot in good faith advocate for such trips. It just is too dangerous. Among those safely ensconced in gated communities a common refrain is that the murder rate is misleading because it is “just” gang members killing gang members; in other words, “good” people are safe. Not only does this form of denial about what is going on in the country dehumanize those people, often children, forced to join a gang, but it is a way of pretending that the violence is somehow removed from daily life in the country. The recent gang-ordered bus strike, enforced through the random killing of bus drivers who defied the order by trying to do their jobs, not only generated a wave of international media attention but also highlights the extent to which the country is controlled, directly and indirectly, by the gangs and not the government.
It would be tempting to treat the problems in El Salvador as just another “bad things happening abroad” bit of news, but doing so ignores the significant ties between the United States and El Salvador. At a formal level, the United States has asserted, ever since the Monroe Doctrine, its unique right to influence Latin America. But at a less theoretical level, Salvadorans can be found throughout the United States and are living proof of the interconnectedness of the world today. The violence in El Salvador has many spillover effects, in El Salvador and in the United States, and normalizing the insecurity by dismissing it as irrelevant to the United States is both short-sighted and morally wrong. Much of what must be done must be done by the Salvadoran government and the Salvadoran people, but, to the extent that ramping up foreign assistance and providing legal status to those fleeing the violence can help, the United States can also play a role. Whether for self-interested or humanitarian reasons, the Washington should act as well.